Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Nathan J. Winograd Headshot

Putting Abusers Before Animals Is Business as Usual at the HSUS

Posted: Updated:

Last November, two starving dogs were found in a Michigan woman's home. By the time police discovered the dogs, it was too late for one of them. The dog died from complications after eating cloth and plastic in a desperate bid to end the pain of hunger. Their abuser was eventually convicted of animal cruelty. Despite her conviction, there is little preventing the woman from acquiring more animals. In fact, were she to apply to adopt an animal from a local shelter or rescue group, they would have no way of knowing that she was in fact a convicted animal abuser. But it doesn't have to be this way, and Michigan animal lovers are working to make sure it no longer is.

A pending bill before the Michigan state legislature would require people convicted of these types of crimes to register with the state. The Animal Abuse registry would then be available to shelters, rescue groups, pet stores, breeders, and the public. If it passes, it would be the first such statewide registry in the nation and an important step toward curtailing the scourge of abuse by expanding common sense protections we now afford to children to another equally vulnerable population: animals.

A non-profit organization has pledged $10,000 to cover the start-up costs and the Wayne County District Attorney's Office has offered to host the database as part of its Animal Crimes Unit. It's a win for state taxpayers, a win for animal lovers, and most important of all, a win for the animals. So why doesn't the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal protection organization, support it?

Recently, one of the sponsors approached HSUS' Michigan lobbyist to ask for their support and HSUS refused. And in a blog post, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle argued against such registries. According to Pacelle, we have to look at it from the abusers' point of view and "strike the right balance between punishment and rehabilitation." He goes on to argue that "Unlike sexual predation--the inspiration for abuse registry systems around the country--animal abuse is not deemed by professionals as a pre-disposed, hard-wired condition. People who abuse animals stand a much better chance of being rehabilitated, especially if identified early at a young age." And finally, he asks, "When someone is convicted and punished for cruelty ... does shunning or shaming them forever do any good for any animals?" As both a former Deputy District Attorney who handled animal cruelty prosecutions and an animal shelter director in charge of animal cruelty investigations I believe, and the facts demonstrate, that Pacelle's views are not only ill informed and naïve, but the antithesis of those one would expect from a person who claims to represent the best interest of animals.

Animal abuse registries are not about "shaming" or "shunning" abusers, they are about protecting animals from future abuse. When a rescuer, shelter, or breeder is placing an animal, being able to readily determine if the person trying to acquire that animal is a convicted animal abuser is an important tool to ensure the animal is not being put in harm's way. The bill would also protect animals in other ways, too. As many people want their cats to go outdoors, aren't they entitled to know if an abuser lives in the neighborhood so they can make an educated decision?

Moreover, there is already precedent and great public support for laws which empower the general public with the information they need to make safe, informed choices about those in their immediate care. Parents nationwide have access to a database to ensure the individuals they hire to care for their children have not been convicted of child abuse. Don't those who share their lives with companion animals--and more importantly, the animals themselves--deserve the same? The early founders of the movement to protect animals and children certainly thought so.

The nation's first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was started in the 19th Century by a man who would also create the first child protection organization: the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC). In fact, many 19th Century humane organizations often shared a dual mandate to advocate for both children and animals. Why? Both are vulnerable, both are unable to adequately protect themselves, both are reliant on us for protection and we have a responsibility to do so for both, a sentiment to which the vast majority of Americans now also subscribe. A national study found that 96% of Americans--almost every single person surveyed--believes we have a moral duty to protect animals and should have strong animal protection laws to do so. So how is it that the man overseeing our nation's largest animal protection group does not agree?

To defend his position on Michigan's proposed animal protection law and against state animal abuse registries in general, Pacelle has made several unfounded statements about the nature of animal abuse and abusers. Pacelle has stated that animal abusers can be "rehabilitated" and therefore recurring abuse is less of a concern. There's little basis for this belief and, in fact, most of the data contradicts it. As a former criminal prosecutor who handled numerous animal cruelty prosecutions, I found that the recidivism rate was in fact incredibly high. Within one year of their conviction, 80% of the perpetrators reoffended, while statistics show that some classes of animal abusers, such as hoarders, have higher rates of recidivism. Nor are the rehabilitation efforts which Pacelle mentions routinely mandated by courts. Such services are costly and do not exist in many communities. Where they do exist, they are unlikely to be required as a term of sentencing. Moreover, where they do exist in this and other contexts and are imposed, they've generally been shown to be ineffective, another reason why registries which flag convicted animal abusers for those who place animals is important: they provide a level of protection for animals against convicted abusers where no other protections or assurances against future abuse currently exist.

It is tempting to look at Pacelle's and HSUS' lack of support for an animal abuse registry in Michigan as born of ignorance. After all, Pacelle has never run a shelter or prosecuted abuse cases. Nor have any of the three individuals who collectively make up the HSUS "sheltering team." But there is more to it. In fact, none of the above is news to HSUS which has long fundraised on what they call "The Link," a definitive correlation between those who abuse animals and their later abuse of people. Animal cruelty is strongly associated with a variety of other crimes, including assault, and studies of serial killers found that most began by abusing animals. In cases of domestic violence, abusers often torment animals in order to punish their spouse. Animal cruelty in the context of domestic violence is, therefore, predictive of future offenses since the recidivism rate of spouse abusers is statistically very high as well.

That is why it is so essential to arm those in decision-making positions with the knowledge they need to ensure that they are adequately protecting animals from future harm. After leaving my career in law to run an animal shelter in upstate New York, my experience as a former criminal prosecutor made me well aware of the ongoing dangers associated with convicted animal abusers. I knew there were individuals within our community who had been convicted of animal cruelty, and yet I had no way of determining who they were. As a responsible shelter director dedicated to ensuring the future welfare of the animals in my care, I would have understood the value of the database Michigan animal lovers are working to create and enthusiastically supported the effort, unlike Pacelle who is speaking out against State registries.

To those on the outside looking in, HSUS' lack of support for an animal abuse registry may seem like an anomaly, a case of the world turned upside down. But for those on the inside, who have been laboring to end neglect, abuse and killing of animals, and who often find themselves opposed by HSUS, their position is no anomaly. In fact, it is part of a recurring pattern that exemplifies the HSUS tenure of CEO Wayne Pacelle.

A Second Chance For the Abuser, But Not His Victims

2013-05-08-WayneandhisMike_Layout1_0001.jpg
Source: Friendly Fire by Nathan & Jennifer Winograd

Case in point: Michael Vick. When news of what had been uncovered at the home of football player Michael Vick first broke, it was an immediate media sensation. Twenty-four-hour news channels could not get enough, and images of Vick's house, his "Bad Newz Kennels" and dogs being seized by officials dominated television, newspapers, magazines and the internet. Americans were transfixed and then they were horrified. As the truth began to leak out about what Michael Vick had been doing to dogs, eyes welled up, stomachs turned and more than a few Americans likely had trouble sleeping at night, haunted as they were by images of the savage cruelty dogs suffered at the hands of Michael Vick.

Yes, Michael Vick fought dogs, and that, in and of itself, was horrible enough. In doing so, he caused dogs unimaginable pain, terror and untimely deaths, all while he laughed as they tore each other to shreds. But more than that, it was revealed that Vick was a sadist, a man who took perverse pleasure in killing dogs and doing so in ways that caused them the greatest possible suffering in the process. Michael Vick beat dogs to death. He drowned them. He electrocuted them. He stomped on them. He hung them. He shot them. He buried them alive. And when some of his co-conspirators wanted to give away dogs who would not fight rather than kill them, Vick refused. In one case, a dog Vick tried to hang by placing a nylon cord over a board that was nailed to two trees refused to die. Wearing a pair of overalls he donned so he would not get blood from the dogs on his expensive, tailored suits, Vick took the dog down and drowned him. But he didn't stop doing those things because he realized they were wrong. In fact, he has never sincerely apologized for his crimes, claiming at one point that his "is a different kind of love" for dogs than most, and that he expressed that love in his own way--by hanging, drowning, electrocuting, beating to death and shooting them.

After the depths of Vick's depravity and the extent of his crimes were fully revealed, he was convicted by the federal courts, sent to prison, banned from the National Football League (NFL), bankrupted and despised by the American people. His public image in tatters, nothing but a miracle could bring him back. Against reason, compassion and decency, that miracle was delivered to him by a person who should have remained his most vocal and outspoken critic: Wayne Pacelle. Pacelle would embrace the person he simply calls "Mike" and fight to rehabilitate his image by arguing publicly that he deserved a second chance, even as he fought to have each and every one of "Mike's" victims, the dogs who were still alive, killed. For Pacelle, Vick's victims did not deserve the second chance their abuser did. And after Pacelle lobbied the court to kill the dogs, he then began lobbying everyone else to forgive the monster who abused them.

"We're all sinners when it comes to animals," explained Pacelle. Pacelle agreed with Vick's statement that dog fighters express "a different kind of love" for dogs. And when Vick said he wanted to get another dog, which was against the terms of his parole, Pacelle agreed again, offering up the most stunning in a long line of stunning comments, "I have been around him a lot, and feel confident that he would do a good job as a pet owner."

After he was released from prison, Michael Vick began appearing at photo ops around the country with Wayne Pacelle right by his side. Pacelle and Vick toured the nation together, including many schools. And it worked. Michael Vick got his career back, the NFL reinstated him, Pacelle got the press coverage he coveted and HSUS was $50,000 dollars richer, thanks to a generous donation by a grateful Philadelphia Eagles franchise that was itself made richer by the presence of a quarterback who could win games.

2013-05-08-Vickdognoface_Layout1_0001.jpg
Source: Friendly Fire by Nathan & Jennifer Winograd

Nor was helping to get Vick reinstated in the NFL the only way HSUS betrayed Vick's victims or exploited the case for publicity and money. Pacelle lobbied to have all of the dogs killed, stating "Officials from our organization have examined some of these dogs and, generally speaking, they are some of the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country." In truth, when an actual assessment of their temperaments was done by behaviorists, only two of the 51 dogs were determined to be beyond the hope of behavior rehabilitation. The rest were eventually placed in sanctuaries and loving homes where they are now cherished family members, treated with the gentleness and compassion they never knew before.

2013-05-08-Vickfundraising.png
Source: HSUS

While HSUS was lobbying to have the Vick dogs killed, it was also fundraising off of them, telling people that the dogs were in HSUS custody when they were not. Shortly after the case broke, HSUS contacted the U.S. Attorney prosecuting Vick and asked if they could see the dogs, then being held at six animal control shelters in Virginia. The U.S. Attorney agreed but only on condition that they take no photographs and not publicly talk about the dogs, citing fears of compromising the case, sensitivities involved in the prosecution and issues surrounding rules of evidence. HSUS agreed and then promptly violated that agreement. HSUS staffers took photographs of the dogs with people wearing HSUS shirts to make it appear that HSUS was directly involved in their care and then used these photographs to fundraise. The U.S. Attorney's Office felt so betrayed that they did not want to work with any animal groups. If they had not been convinced otherwise, the dogs who eventually went to a sanctuary, rescue groups and loving homes would be dead right now.

Defending Colleagues at Abusive Shelters

Are these cases anomalies; small missteps in an otherwise sterling record of animal protection? No. In fact, siding with abusers by working to shield them from accountability for their actions is a recurring pattern with HSUS, especially when the abuse of killing of animals is done by those working in our nation's animal shelters. When a whistleblower secretly recorded abuse of cats at Miami-Dade Animal Services in Florida and animal lovers called for the director's resignation, Pacelle came to the shelter director's defense, saying he was pleased with her work. When a shelter director in Hammond, Louisiana killed every dog and cat in their shelter because a small handful of dogs contracted a mild coronavirus (which clears up on its own and is not contagious to cats), HSUS defended the shelter, blaming the killing on the public. And while animal lovers call Davidson County, North Carolina's shelter "savage," a "disgrace," "disgusting" and "horrific," for its sadistic abuse of animals, HSUS calls it a "shelter we love." In fact, HSUS has sent dogs it claimed to "rescue" to a shelter which gassed them to death and it has fundraised off of abused dogs it was not even caring for, while suggesting the dog should face a pretty certain death.

Bold Promises, Ongoing Betrayals

When Wayne Pacelle took over as the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States in 2004, he pledged that HSUS "will honor the highest ethical standards in pursuing our mission, working within the system to advance our objectives." And Americans believed him, flooding HSUS with donations. Thanks to a deep love of animals and incredible generosity when it comes to protecting them, Americans have made HSUS one of the richest charities in the nation and an organization that takes in over $130 million dollars a year. Today, Americans believe HSUS is working to further the well-being of animals, when in truth, incident after incident demonstrates that the opposite is often occurring. In Michigan, in Texas, in California, in New York, in Virginia, and elsewhere across the nation, HSUS has used its power and influence not to further legal protections for animals or to reform abusive shelters, but to undermine such legislative efforts or to provide political cover for those who abuse them.

It is too late for the little dog who died of complications from starvation in Michigan. The cloth and plastic she ate in a desperate but futile attempt to ease the pain of hunger ended up killing her. But it is not too late for any other Michigan dog or cat whom that abuser might try to adopt or buy. That is, unless HSUS has its way and legislators defer to the opinion of Wayne Pacelle that the interests of animal abusers are on par with those of their potential future victims.

As shocking as it is to hear the head of the nation's largest animal protection group speak as an advocate for convicted animal abusers rather than the animals his organization is pledged to protect, the rationale for his tortured logic aren't any less stunning or more credible than his assertion that we must defend convicted animal abusers from the logical consequences of their criminal behavior. His claim that we need to "strike a balance" between the rights of animals and the rights of abusers ignores that today, the status quo deeply favors the abuser, leaving potential victims helpless and vulnerable to neglect and cruelty.

By knowing the right lies to tell and which truths to omit, convicted animal abusers can potentially acquire animals even from those who are dedicated to their protection but are currently forced to operate in a state of ignorance simply because they lack access to valuable information that would help them make better, more informed choices about the animals in their care. The Michigan Animal Abuse Registry would strip abusers of this advantage and prevent future animal abuse with nothing more than a few simple strokes of a keyboard. Not seizing this opportunity to expand protection for animals as HSUS would have Michigan do is unconscionable. But for Wayne Pacelle and HSUS, it is business as usual.